You Are The Center: Julianna Barwick, Julia Holter, and New Age Music

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 30, 2013 — 3 Comments

Through most of the 1970s, and into the 1980s, the genre of music that would become ‘New Age’ was a largely independent affair. Small labels, or records self-released by artists, sold their albums and cassettes in alternative venues like bookstores, metaphysical shops, alternative healing centers, and other places receptive to the spiritual and experimental nature of the sounds produced. However, momentum was building. The syndicated radio show Hearts In Space spread through the NPR affiliates, some radio stations started adopting a New Age format, and major labels started signing New Age artists (or buying up entire New Age labels). Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, everything exploded. For me, two records stand out in this regard: Enya’s “Watermark,” which seemed omnipresent as a musical force through the late 1980s, and Enigma’s “MCMXC a.D.” which was released in 1990 and topped charts in dozens of countries. After that, all bets were off. New Age was big, big, business, and a string of artists hit huge, often with diminishing results, until the genre became a parody of itself. As interest faded, and the music industry went into a tailspin, major artists went on long hiatuses, stepped sideways into lucrative non-musical gigs, or tinkered with their formulas. While the big artists would continue to draw big crowds, the gold rush decade was over.

If that narrative sounds familiar, it’s because New Age music shares it with a host of other musical genres. But unlike, say, grunge (or disco), few would stand up for those noodling space-ways travelers so easily mocked by comedians. Because it wasn’t just the music, New Age was joined at the hip to the market busily selling products and teachings to a large number of spiritual seekers. This symbiotic relationship between those who sold books and crystals, and those who made music to soundtrack inner spiritual journeys, would be hard to separate. However, a confluence of time, easy judgement-free access to music, and hunger for new sounds, have managed to push forward a new appreciation of the sonic adventurism and experimentalism of early New Age music. A central document of this movement in 2013, would be the compilation “I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950-1990,” from Light In The Attic records.

“Forget everything you know, or think you know, about new age, a genre that has become one of the defining musical-archaeological explorations of the past decade. I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age In America, 1950-1990 is the first major anthology to survey the golden age of new age and reveal the unbelievable truth about the genre. For new age, at its best, is a reverberation of psychedelic music, and great by any standard. This is analog, handmade music communicating soul and spirit, often done on limited means and without commercial potential, self-published and self-distributed. Before it became big business and devolved into the spaced out elevator music we know and loathe today, this was the real thing.”

“I Am The Center” has crystalized (no pun intended) a movement to re-examine these early pioneers, a trend that’s been quietly bubbling under the surface of underground music for years now. Many electronic-minded artists moving in the realms of experimental and ambient sounds have acknowledged the debt these artists are owed, but that praise was often quiet and conditioned, as “New Age” (as a genre) became something associated with cynical money-making and hack-work. Listening to the artists on “I Am The Center” is something of a revelation, especially if you’ve spent years hating the genre. Here, on these two discs, are small treasures to be found. Individuals with a drive to make music serve a higher purpose, in an atmosphere that’s almost punk-rock in its DIY ethos. Those who’ve opened their minds to this new retrospective have been surprised at how much there is to like, and respect.

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“With an open mind I sat down to listen. Not four tracks in, I soon found myself impressed with how ahead of its time some of this music must have been – a perfect example being the 1971 track, “Pompeii 76 A.D.” So futuristic sounding is the bell like harp and cavernous reverb that it was used some 11 years later by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner, a film widely considered the archetype for modern science fiction. Indeed, as the compilation progresses, I am repeatedly amazed by the lush electronic textures and extreme use of reverb in creating spaces. The glacial atmospherics and fragmented textures in tracks like “Om Mani Padme Hum” ebb and pulsate with such subtle intensity and depth, it is easy to forget it was recorded long before the advent of digital effects.”

Music journalists, as early as 2011, were picking up on the fruits of this exploration. Some artists and revivalists seemed to revel in the repulsion some still feel at the term.

“Underground noisemakers like Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never, Stellar Om Source and Blues Control are following suit, mixing the soothing sound textures of the genre as well as its visual aesthetic into their own works. San Francisco specialty record shop Aquarius Records raves not just about the latest Norwegian doom metal album but also the dronescapes of composer David Parsons, and New York’s Other Music touts artists like Claire Hamill. For some, such music might be of passing interest, but other musicians gravitate toward it as a balm in the age of digital overload. Call it the new age of New Age. “‘New Age’ is a thoroughly discredited term,” said Douglas Mcgowan, who reissues rare New Age albums through his Yoga Records imprint. “Part of why I like the term is because of how much it bothers people. I think it’s more fun to enjoy something that is frowned upon. There’s a rebelliousness to embracing something that has been discarded and deemed worthless by the culture at large.”"

All of this would simply be an odd curiosity, except for the fact that two of this year’s best albums: Julia Holter’s “Loud City Song” and Julianna Barwick’s “Nepenthe.” Both have backgrounds in experimental music,  and both have drawn multiple comparisons to New Age music.

“There are some distinctly new age influences on Loud City Song, starting with the almost unaccompanied vocal intro to “World.” Holter’s proclivity for subtitling grand art rock structures with jazz instrumentation and lounge tones – especially when it comes to the album’s upright bass parts – is reminiscent of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden LP. “In the Green Wild” is as much late Arto Lindsay as it is early Kate Bush, containing strange hints of each’s Invoke andNever For Ever albums respectively. The latter seems to be, if not a direct influence of Holter, a startlingly apt comparison point, especially on Loud City Song’s proclivity towards creating tonal swells out of the dialogue between deliberately separated instruments.”

This is especially true for Barwick. While Holter enters into terrain that is percussive and jazz-influenced, Barwick’s “Nepenthe” is an album of cascading waves of vocal and sound that remind you just how emotionally affecting these effects can be. It is both church and misty forest, a numinous crossroads where our hearts open almost unconsciously.

“Back in 2011, with the release of The Magic Place, not a few column inches were expended trying to explain why Julianna Barwick was not “the new Enya”, as the NYT had previously suggested. Many people seemed to feel that, in order to justify the value of Barwick’s music, they first had to distance it from that most toxic of tags, ‘New Age’. Which seems like an odd viewpoint given the pluralist, post-canonical taste-o-sphere we inhabit these days – one where the musical whipping boys of yesteryear are routinely revived as cult favourites. In 2013, there is plenty of music around that is emotionally monochrome and pleasingly so; more still that is pretty much entirely surface, but gorgeous surface nonetheless.”

It should be pointed out that neither Barwick or Holter are the “new” anybody, and those looking for a new “Watermark” will be disappointed. But, for the adventurous explorer of sound, one who isn’t turned off by music that suggests, that surrounds, rather than bludgeons, these artists bring forth the best aspects of a much-maligned mode of musical expression. These three albums:  “I Am The Center,” “Loud City Song,” and “Nepenthe” remind us that every genre gained an audience for a reason. That the gross cash-in of the later years of New Age came from a purer place, one of honest expression. That New Age music does have a legacy worth preserving, and incorporating into the now of popular taste.

There are other places I could go in this exploration, the new documentary about Krishna Das, for example. But I don’t want to stray too far from the center of my main point. Wrapped in this story is a cautionary tale, one that tells of spiritual and artistic ambition exploited, degraded, and ultimately left to rot in a cultural cul-de-sac. An art form left to wander in the wilderness until rescued by a new generation untainted by the associations it had affixed to this creative form. Every artist wishes for fiscal reward, for a comfortable living from their art, but that reward can also undo them. Finally, it is the striving for excellence that makes a work of art distinctive. Barwick and Holter are not pigeon-holed as “New Age” because their artistry and ambition resist easy categories. A lesson that “Pagan” musicians could take to heart. For perhaps we don’t need a “Pagan Music” any more than spiritual seekers needed a “New Age” genre back in the 1980s. All we need are artists dancing the liminal, embracing the mythic, without the labels, tropes, or expectations of any one group.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • SoniaMJ

    Fabulous article. This is very close to the heart of what my band is attempting to create. An embrace of the timeless human experience….no labels….just music for the human soul. If you’re interested, you can have a listen at http://www.chronilus.com

  • Raksha38

    Thanks for this! Although New Age may not be my favorite musical genre (except for Enya! Still my girl!), I do think it gets way more crap than it deserves. I feel like a lot of people pile on because it’s an easy target for jokes.

  • Crystal Hope Kendrick

    I still listen to MCMXC a.D. when I want a particular trance experience. It’s timeless.